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The role of the research chef

The role of the research and development chef is to provide creative culinary services to the development team.

New menu item development is key to the job of the research chef, but that’s not all. Chefs must develop procedures, evaluate ingredients, refine recipes, optimize operations, improve profitability and ensure food safety and quality assurance.

To accomplish all of this successfully, the focus must be on customer satisfaction. A major risk to successful new menu item introductions is the failure of the research chef to understand the target customer. Consider the Mexican restaurant chain that opened a unit in Dearborn, Michigan. They were very proud of their refried beans, made fresh every day and served with every platter. Business was going strong until word got out that the beans contained lard. Lard is rendered pork fat—and Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States.

What about the chef who tried to develop new sandwiches for an elder care facility. The chef loved artisanal breads and found a local baker to produce an incredible seeded crusty roll, delivered fresh daily. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the residents wore dentures. The roll was too crusty for them to bite through and chew, causing several of them to choke. The seeds also got caught under the dentures, causing lacerations.

The R&D chef must be aware of, and respect, the scientific yellow lines that impact the development effort. The ultimate role of the chef is as the guardian of the culinary gold standard. The word “standard” should not be taken lightly once a restaurant company invokes it. Standards are non-negotiable and should be easily identifiable and verifiable. A product either meets standards or it doesn’t. If you have established a standard that all salad mix must be cold and crisp, and you walk into one of your restaurants and find room-temperature, limp salads being served, what should you do? It’s a simple answer if your standards are non-negotiable.

Science and the creative process

Too often the research chef operates under incredible time constraints, so that many protocols that food technologists take for granted are overlooked. Here are the three areas that a research chef involved in new menu item development should be adept at.

Record keeping: The R&D process begins with accurate and detailed record keeping. There’s nothing worse than trying to recreate a recipe that you were positive you would remember (it only had a few ingredients and was really easy to prepare) and failing to capture the original’s flavor, appearance or texture the second time around.

All creative types bristle at the suggestion that everything must be written down. Well, whoever came up with the adage, “If it’s not written down, it never happened” must have had culinary R&D in mind. A journal, notebook or PC can be used.

Some items worth recording

• The name of the item being worked on
• The date the work took place
• The objective
• Who the product is for
• Recipe ingredients and amounts
• Procedure
• Results
• Next steps needed

Experimentation:  An experiment is an operation carried out under controlled conditions in order to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to illustrate a known law. Every time we begin to work on a new recipe we are experimenting. The operative term is “controlled conditions,” and in a scientific environment that means limiting the variables. Let’s assume the R&D team is assigned a project to make a beef stew, and the marketing department tells you that consumers really want a “thick, rich sauce.” You have beef base for the flavor, and modified food starch for the thickening agent. The question is, How much of each one to use?

The first thing you have to settle on is the viscosity, or thickness, because it directly impacts how we taste. Once you have the starch issue settled you can then decide how much base to add. If you try to work on both levels at once you won’t know which variable has the optimum impact.

Measurement: Precision is the watchword in a scientific environment, as much as replication. In the test kitchen you work in grams, especially with seasonings. The more exact you are, the more assured you can be of a successful new product.

The team approach

How is your new product development (NPD) effort organized? The most efficient and effective NPD organizations center around multidisciplinary teams. The basis for the team approach is pretty simple: We all look good together, or we all hang together. Another trait effective teams share is that all members have a clear understanding of the strategies, objectives and the desired end result. A typical team is comprised of core members and support members. Core members generally represent the marketing, culinary and operations departments, as well as key members of the executive team. They are involved in a project from start to finish, though their specific involvement will vary during any given stage of the project. Support members represent other disciplines—finance, purchasing, facilities, IT, training, human resources—on an as-needed basis. The team can be organized formally or informally. Both approaches can be equally effective.

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